Art Fraudster Awaits Sentence After Circus Trial

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – It will likely be years before the victims of fallen real estate mogul Luke Brugnara’s fraud will see $11 million worth of fine art returned, a federal judge said Tuesday.
     U.S. District Judge William Alsup said four works – a drawing by Joan Miró, two paintings by Willem de Kooning paintings and a painting by George Luks – will remain in evidence until the case against Brugnara is over.
     The works, excluding the Luks painting, which belongs to art dealer Rose Long, are owned by New York dealer Walter Maibaum and his company Modernism Fine Arts.
     “The trial is over but the case is not,” Alsup said at a Tuesday hearing. “The items in evidence will remain in the record.”
     After a two-week trial in May, a jury found Brugnara guilty of two counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud, one count of making false declarations to the court, escape and contempt. Brugnara briefly took it on the lam when he was taken from jail to meet with his attorney.
     The government said the case was a matter of a simple con job by Brugnara, who persuaded Long to ship him five crates of fine art worth about $11 million without ever intending to pay for it.
     The FBI seized four of the crates in a raid on Brugnara’s home on May 28, 2014. The fifth crate, containing the most valuable piece, a Valsuani bronze cast of the Edgar Degas sculpture “The Little Dancer, Age Fourteen,” remains missing.
     The rest of the works, which include other de Kooning paintings and Degas sketches, could be returned after both sides have them appraised.
     Alsup gave the government and Brugnara’s lawyers three weeks to conduct their separate appraisals. If they come up with vastly different valuations, Alsup said, “We’ll probably just hold onto everything.”
     That provoked an outburst from Maibaum’s lawyer, Allison Davis, who said refusal to return art to a dealer is akin to closing down a brick and mortar store and telling the owners they can’t do business.
     “I can’t even express to you the hardships my clients are going through,” Davis said. “These aren’t just people who want to hang pictures up. This is how they make their living.” She said her 80-year-old client has had to borrow money since losing the works.
     Alsup was not impressed.
     “Who sent it out west? Your client. He had dollar marks in his eyes,” Alsup said. “Maybe he didn’t do his homework on who he was selling to. I’m not that sympathetic to the argument that he is going to go hungry.”
     Alsup had even less patience for Brugnara, who is now represented by court-appointed counsel for his pending appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
     The obstreperous defendant represented himself at trial, where he turned the court upside down with bombastic speeches, explosive screaming fits and frequent personal attacks on Judge Alsup and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris.
     When the jury read its verdict in May, Brugnara yelled to the audience: “This judge hates me.”
     He shouted: “Get the noose ready.”
     Alsup held Brugnara in criminal contempt and sentenced him to 471 days in custody over and above the sentence he will receive on Sept. 8.
     On Tuesday, Brugnara was flanked by his new attorneys, George Boisseau and Dena Young. Young raised her hand at him to prevent him from speaking out of turn, but Brugnara interrupted her to ask Alsup about his latest motion for self-representation.
     “You’re not going to go pro se again. If you say anything, the marshals will kick you out,” Alsup told him.
     A few minutes later, two marshals led Brugnara from the courtroom, despite his stiff-legged resistance. He could be heard screaming in the hallway for the rest of the hearing.
     Less than an hour later, Alsup denied Brugnara’s motion. The judge reeled off instances of Brugnara’s disruptive behavior, adding: “The contempt power, used repeatedly, failed to rein in the misbehavior. Appointment of two CJA advisory counsel failed to guide the offender in a proper direction. The court itself, out of the presence of the jury, explained proper procedure to the offender and he ignored the advice again and again. Cautionary instructions to the jury helped up to a point but that point was far exceeded. There is no plausible course other than to insist that the offender abide by what he himself requested after the verdict, appointment of free counsel for all purposes – no more pro se status.”

%d bloggers like this: